NIMBIN: MYTHS, DREAMS AND MYSTERIES
Whatever it is that we are going through now, it seems that the patterns and images of the past are stretching to describe it. The process seems to be that the forms self-destruct—art gives way to non-art, education to de-schooling, psychiatry to anti-psychiatry ad infinitum. The result of this is that the forefront of the new culture is left in a formless void. The mythology of the past being no longer sufficient, it seems that the task is to create our own mythology.
It is a strange mythology, which progresses by events rather than by philosophic issues. It is peopled by a new breed, freed of limiting 'realities' of the humdrum and mundane, acting out their fantasies on as large a level as they can and imposing them on their surroundings and environment whenever they can. With all of its positives and negatives, with its acid-based neuroses and power trips, with its freedom and affirmation, with its 'moments of doubt and hate', it seems the new breed of the fantastic is here to stay. We have been familiar with the American brand for some time it has become the stuff of history, and the stuffing of the dailies Woodstock, Altamont, Manson, Jagger, Leary Ram Dass. Whereas once upon a time it was the domain of the 'underground', of 'counter culture' and the drug-inspired youth movement, it has now become the domain of all Chicago , Ellsberg, Watergate, Nixon, Kissinger, the Middle East, Standard Oil the American dream-cum-false. The media type images of the rock industry, Lou Reid, Alice Cooper, Ziggy Stardust—are hard put to outdo the fantasies of what used to be the 'straight' world.
For a while we partook of our fantasies straight down the stem of the American pipe-dream. There had been stirrings of fantasy, inside all of us and inside the common consciousness, but we had been too timid to unleash them upon ourselves and upon each other. But the last few years has changed all that —Nimbin, Whitlam, Gair and the Great Irish Prawn Conspiracy, Double Dissolutions—this is the stuff that fantasy is made of.
And the participants of Nimbin were not slow to enter the new mood. 'In a Revolution there are no spectators'—only participants. And the prevailing mood was of participation. Aquarian age children of the dream, sneering, cop-hating revolutionaries spacemen, Jesus Christs, and Fred Robinsons, all were there prepared to make an art out the very act of living, symbolised perhaps by Philippe Petit, ready to walk the tightrope at the drop of a hat and entice you into living for the moment which can never return.
In Norse mythology, Ragnorak is the day of the great final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, when the warriors return from Valhalla and the fate of man is forever decided. The events of the seventies have indeed the feeling of Ragnorak, with all the ghosts of the past alive to battle out a final revolution of what life on the planet shall be about, or if indeed it will go on at all.
And Nimbin seemed our own small Ragnorak. We had naively hoped that by moving to a country base we could put the festival soundly inside the green revolution mentality of the new age—a 'softlick' celebration. But where go the forces of Odin, there go also the forces of the evil Loki— even to the infinite depths of the universe, as our erudite background in Marvel comics should have taught us.
So there we were, all of us balanced on the delicate tightrope between our fondest dreams and our most feared nightmares. Nothing was missing from the whole horrendous, ecstatic collage that is living in the seventies, except that usually we are buffered from the intensity of it all by the massive mediocrity which blunts our senses and the personal cocoons we weave around ourselves in order to survive in the jungle.
The vibes were so tangible that, as the cliche goes, you could reach out and touch them. Never before was the new age peace and brotherhood more believable. In the euphoria of green fields, blue skies, people and music, love became tangible. It was passed around with each piece of fruit, each note of music, each soft caress. One by one the defences of cynicism were lowered, as we gave one another licence to dream and to love, to rediscover and redefine these experiences. But gradually through the euphoria came the realisation of conflict, the coming-of-age dilemma of the liberation movements. The realisation, given new meaning by the Aquarian age cold war between meat eaters and vegetarians, that one man's meat is another man's poison.
Enter downstairs dramatically, the forces of evil. The drug bust, the spontaneous emancipation of the bustee, and the almost equally spontaneous arrival of the 21st Division, known colloquially as the 'riot squad'. Suddenly it all hung out—the dope scene, pushers, student power militants, cop-haters and a vast array of detective-sergeant Peabodies the underside of our psyches. The trumpets had sounded and Ragnorak begun although, as is usually the case in such instances, Odin was elsewhere. The vibes, described above as tangible, remained so, but now some of them met you in the back like sharp pointed swords. It all happened a little too spontaneously, a little too predictably. In opting out of the urban environment and its corollaries of urban guerillaism and the heavy, flat foot of authoritarianism, we had reckoned without the 'connections' of the Australian Union of Students (AUS). In the confusion of the events that followed, all we ever gleaned was that the dope had been planted and the cops tipped off. There were murmurings about Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASI0), about plots to discredit AUS and through them the Federal Government which had partly funded the festival. All that ever became clear was that the surface events betrayed a murky array of machiavellian plots and subplots, that the forces of evil were using as pawns the student politicos, the cops, and anyone else who would willingly enter the fray.
But the festival had been based on a dream which went deeper, and a dream which was not unused to confrontation, violence and disillusion. The roots of the dream went back to the sixties. It was a dream of freedom, of the realisation of potential, and the limitlessness of realisation. 'The only limitation of mankind's future' said Bucky Fuller 'is man's imagination'. It was also a dream which had survived exploitation before the cynicism of the industrialisation of rock, the absorption of the drug culture into the worlds of fashion and big business. It was a dream which had learnt, the hard way, the limitations of freedom. 'Man is as free as the birds' said John Cage. 'But even the birds aren't free. They are limited by the very fact that they exist, just as man is, and in the same manner.
The dream dug in. People took to the fields and stayed there to await the passing of the battle. And pass it did. On the tenth and last day the vibes had subsided, the riot squad had moved on, and again we were left with the sky, the stars, the music and the moon.
There seems to me to be a first innocence, born of the sixties, based on a naïve belief in the possibilities, on an ignorance of our own limitations and the limitations of the world around us. We emerged from Nimbin, as the Americans had emerged from Altamont and Chicago, with a kind of second innocence, an innocence based on having tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, but an innocence nonetheless. And it seems to me that the dream emerged—a little battered and torn, a little sadder, older and wiser, but nonetheless the dream emerged. There was a feeling of resolution over the valley on that last night, a feeling that took me back to a line from one of Allen Ginsberg's poems written in the early sixties, suggesting that all that mattered was 'to have been here, and to have changed'.
The dream goes on After the festival I toured with the Bauls, ending up at the traditional Baul festival in Birbhum District in the heart of Bengal. The festival is held at Jai Dev, a small village where the poet Jai Dev, who wrote the Gita Govinda, lived. The village is on a tributary of the Ganges, which flows into the Ganges on all but four days of the year when, because of the moon's influence, the tides reverse and the Ganges flows into it. On these four days, traditionally since the twelfth century, the Bauls converge from all over Bengal to Jai Dev. The astrologers from each village determine the dates, and unerringly, the message is spread at grass roots level. By mail people make rendezvoux, and by foot, bullock wagon and train converge over hundreds of miles for many months. As if by magic, they emerge from the forests and over the dusty plains over the same few days, like some biblical exodus to the promised land, bearing craft works and instruments. On the last day of the festival, probably one of the most improbable musical ensembles ever assembled gathered on the stage, Nimbin expatriates all, to sing Waltzing Matilda and Three Blind Mice over All India Radio and to a gathering of thousands. That night of resolution in the hills of Nimbin flashed into my mind, when we had been the hosts and the Bauls had been the mythical strangers. Through that mist of centuries and tradition, through the black shining faces and the biblical landscape of Bengal, that same dream was visible.
I returned to a very unfamiliar Australia—to a Sydney whose affluence and surface shine contrasted violently with the bleak sparcity of the Bengal landscape. In the materialism and the affluence, the dream is barely visible now. There is a quality of living in the cities which is glittering, brave and desperate—sometimes frenetic in the attempt to live the now before it vanishes, sometimes quiet and tranquil in the attempt to carve out a place within it with soft enough corners to allow some peace of mind. 'Is this what became of the dream?' I asked myself.
My first real re-entry was at a workshop on communities organised by Graeme Dunstan at Duval Creek near Armidale. It was a kind of mini-Nimb in , without the complexity and involvement which made it almost impossible for Graeme and I to see Nimbin other than through a thick haze of organisational details and hassles. I came out of it with a strong affirmation of the communal life style with the realisation that living creatively inside such a life style was so rich and rewarding that nothing else was worth considering, but with little clearer idea of how to achieve it.
From there I continued on to Nimbin for the christening of Softly Sigh, Graeme and Vi's baby daughter. Softly had been conceived at Nimbin under the auspicious full moon of the festival, and now, nine months later, with the Tuntable Falls commune a reality, the christening of the baby was a coming to fruition, and a birth of the promise, an affirmation of the dream which even those who had never met Graeme and Vi could share in. The christening took the form of a ritual procession from the White House to a valley on the property where the stream widened into a large pool, where the baby was dedicated by Precious to the four elements, the four spirits of the four directions, to the music of Paul Joseph:
angel of sunshine down on my body
fill me with energy give me life
here i surrender to your power
let me enter unto your light
angel of air i will go where you send me
follow on the wind that you send me to breathe
i have no question of your direction
like the rustle of the leaves for you i am free
angel of earth i will tread upon you gently
your carpet of grasses i thank you for
i sing your praise for food on my table
i give you care for i am your own
angel of water cleanse me wholly
by your grace won't you show me to flow
you have all answers in your dance, oh
teach me the steps we one and all should know
The baby was then passed around the circular gathering, where it received a hundred blessings, the concentration by all those present of their own hopes, dreams and aspirations.
I never left Nimbin. For some reason, with all its contradictions, hassles and illusions, the dream lives strongly there. About a thousand people reside on the commune and in the hills around the town, many in groups of a dozen or less in once abandoned farm houses. Most of the hassles we brought with us linger on—they seem to be of our own making. There are still those islands of aloneness and fear, impossible to put your finger on, communicate or explain. There are still the issues—of leadership, of doing your own thing or helping do everyone else's, of the drifters and the doers, of the meateaters and the vege's. There are new social norms. There are middle class hippies, there are 'old settlers' from the time of the festival, and newcomers who never went to it and couldn't careless. There are occasional feuds and disagreements, much lack of direction and some lack of certainty. There are many levels of seeing the place, and it is almost impossible to reconcile them, or even for them to speak a common language.
If there is any general agreement, it might be summed up in an extract from the March 1974 Newsletter of the Programme of Peace and Conflict Research at Lancaster University, U.K. to put men before machines, people before governments, practice before theory, student before teacher, the country before the city, smallness before bigness, wholeness before reductionism, organic materials before synthetic ones, plants before animals, craftmanship before expertise, and quality before quantity.'
If the problems of adjustment with the town have not been resolved, at least they have settled down. Lismore residents reflect on the days when Nimbin used to be outside of Lismore instead of vice versa, and the townsfolk talk rather protectively and somewhat warmly of 'our hippies'. The graffiti in the town's public toilet will tell you that Nimbin is spelt 'heaven-on-earth', and if the first hippie you meet outside looks through your eyes like a true child of light, the next will probably grumble about the chaos on Tuntable. But most stay. And they touch one another a lot. Their relations, and those with the townspeople, are personal. Daisy in the cafe, Basil in the bakery, Mr Smith in the post office are real people, and not just faces behind counters. Sometimes, albeit not often, the community comes together with great joy. There have been deaths in the valley, and the first of many babies born to Black Allen and Mary. Nimbin is writing its own history. And somewhere in the hills the dream survives. Living at Nimbin is not a total panacea, there is some doubt that it is any solution at all, but there is still resolution under the full moon.